Wisdom for the Next Generation

Our recent graduates and newest alumni inherit a responsibility to serve.

September/October 2006

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Wisdom for the Next Generation

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

This year, as many of you know, separate commencement ceremonies for graduate students and undergraduates were held because of the ongoing renovation of Stanford Stadium. This situation afforded Stanford a rare opportunity: two commencement speakers. Tom Brokaw, renowned journalist and author, spoke to undergraduates, and Vartan Gregorian, ’58, PhD ’64, president of the Carnegie Corporation and former president of the New York Public Library and Brown University, addressed graduate students. And this year’s Class Day speaker, Professor Coit D. Blacker, provided additional wisdom especially derived from his time serving in the Clinton administration.

Brokaw identified the tremendous opportunities awaiting the graduates, calling the commencement “a uniquely American moment of great promise and, for all of us as well, of great emotion that we have to fulfill in the days and years to come.” Such opportunity, he reminded them, comes with a price.

“While we are gathered here in this place of privilege and promise,” Brokaw said, “other young men and women, your fellow citizens . . . at this hour are in uniform and in harm’s way. However you may feel about the decision that placed them in peril, you must not forget them or their families, for they have volunteered to risk their lives if necessary to ensure your security and to defend this country.”

In his remarks, Gregorian noted the difficulty of discerning a role in this complex world and the obligation to successive generations.

“The world around us is full of raucous chatter and noise,” he said. “Amid all this cacophony, it’s hard to see ourselves as part of a larger whole, a continuing eternal harmony. Well, today I would like to remind you of your connection to history. Try to listen with your inner ears to those who went before you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and on and on, who all wanted to be good ancestors to you.

“As an historian, educator and a fellow student, I feel bound to remind you that the time has come for you to return the favor. You have to learn to be good ancestors to the future.”

The most straightforward formulation of the speakers’ advice was given by Blacker, who focused his speech on four values: utility, humility, honor and service.

“If you remember nothing else of what I’ve said today . . . please register and store the following for future reference,” he said. “Be useful. Be humble. Act honorably. And give of yourself until it hurts.”

He relayed the message he had learned in his own service to the U.S. government.

“The lesson is a simple one,” he said. “However you choose to serve, make sure it demands more of you than you believe you are capable of giving. Because only by moving beyond our comfort zones can we access that part of us that we didn’t even know existed. And it is through this process—and only through this process, as painful and disorienting as it is—that we grow, that we mature, and that we contribute to the very best of our ability.”

Of course, that commitment to service and the obligation to the next generation go back to the very founding of the University. The Stanfords envisioned their new university as a place where students and faculty alike would engage in the life of the mind and the work of the world. Rarely has the need for that engagement been more critical. The scope and complexity of the challenges we face—medical, social, political and environmental, to name just a few—make it all the more pressing for today’s graduates. The speakers all recognized the humbling responsibility this placed on the shoulders of the next generation of leaders and, in particular, saw the importance of solving the very difficult problems of international security and regional strife.

To that end, Brokaw reminded the graduates, a primary challenge of the their era would be “to bank the fires of hostilities that are now burning out of control, to neutralize that hatred, to expedite not just global competition economically and politically, but also global understanding, and especially global opportunity. To do that requires more than a fresh political strategy or imagination. It requires the personal commitment of the best among us, the Stanford Class of 2006.”

That is a tall order, but perhaps Gregorian made the simplest argument for engagement: “I hope as you climb the ladder of success, you will always remember the dictum ‘From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.’”

We expect much of a Stanford graduate, and I am confident that our expectations are not misplaced. Our future and that of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

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